Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State: A Review

Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State (1517-1625) by Sarah Mortimer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. Hardback. 320 pp. £35.

The last few decades have witnessed an extraordinary flowering of scholarship on the Reformation period, and especially the long-neglected terrain of Reformation-era moral and political thought. In many ways, however, the result seems to be less knowledge and fewer certitudes than ever before. Fifty years ago, scholars and popularizers alike could pontificate about how the Reformation laid the foundations for modern political liberalism, empowering individuals, secularizing politics, or fomenting revolution. Or else they might declaim about the ways in which Protestantism discarded natural law for an autocratic or even theocratic politics, while Catholic thinkers carefully developed medieval scholasticism into the building blocks of modern constitutionalism. Today, we know too much to sustain any such generalizations, positive or negative. 

Sarah Mortimer’s sweeping new survey of political thought in this era, Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State (1517-1625) is a case in point. If one were to sum up her argument in a hashtag, it would be #ItsComplicated. While she does occasionally attempt to make broad generalizations about the tendencies of Protestant or Catholic political thought in this period, more often her conclusions are tentative, ambiguous, and accompanied by notable counterexamples. She also refuses to limit herself to a few pet authors, or privilege individual voices unduly. Her discussion of Luther spans just five pages, and Calvin just three; other critical thinkers garner at least as much attention, from Bellarmine and Buchanan to Vasquez and Vitoria. In a quest for comprehensiveness and perhaps to forestall charges of arrogant Eurocentricism, she even includes a chapter on early modern Islamic political thought. The material here is interesting, but hangs awkwardly like an appendage; if the Islamic angle is actually important to the argument of the book, it should occupy more than 10% of the whole, and if not, it should probably be left out. As it is, it feels like the intellectual history equivalent of a diversity hire. 

In its comprehensiveness and tentativeness, the book is in many ways a model of good historiography: Mortimer surveys an extremely wide field of primary sources and sticks as much as possible to those sources, allowing them to speak for themselves; she refuses to impose her own interpretive grid or agenda on those sources as a straitjacket, even if it means leaving some untidy loose ends. But this strength is also a weakness, as the reader looks in vain for clear thesis statements or compelling conclusions. The book is replete with vague and noncommittal sentences like the following: “All three of these authors…believed that the rules of human life must transcend the local political context and sought therefore to understand the laws of nature and of nations. At the same time, they realized that these natural and universal laws must be embedded in the practices and principles of each particular community, albeit sometimes in different ways” (251). At the end of the book, one feels like one has just enjoyed an edifying stroll through a museum of antiquities, but a bit hazy on what the point of it all was. 

That said, a recurring set of themes and questions do help to anchor the book and focus the reader’s attention on enduring questions of political thought that remain intensely relevant for Christians today. Three are particularly worthy of attention.

Divine Law vs. Natural Law

One of this book’s many merits is that Mortimer has fully taken on board the recent retrieval of Protestant natural law theory. There is no hint here that the Reformers took natural law any less seriously than their Catholic counterparts; indeed in some ways she suggests they took it more seriously. But this does not mean they understood or applied it quite the same way. More than a century ago, Bavinck and Kuyper sought to highlight what they saw as the fundamental issue at stake in the Reformation: the relationship between nature and grace. On their reading, Roman Catholicism allowed for a separation of man’s natural and supernatural ends, whereas Protestantism integrated them, insisting that human nature was always ordered toward the worship of God. Mortimer appears to corroborate this reading, arguing that Protestant thinkers refused to separate temporal and spiritual ends, natural law from divine law. That is to say, all the duties of man were summed up already in the natural law (encompassing the first and second tables of the Decalogue); church was thus part of commonwealth, rather than some add-on of detached “spiritual” duties. Accordingly, a just ruler must be a godly ruler, prescribing and maintaining right worship throughout his domain.

“There is no hint here that the Reformers took natural law any less seriously than their Catholic counterparts; indeed in some ways she suggests they took it more seriously. But this does not mean they understood or applied it quite the same way.”

While Mortimer is certainly onto something here, she fails to grapple adequately with the paradox that Protestants also often proved more willing than their Catholic counterparts to limit politics to this-worldly ends. For instance, Protestants almost uniformly renounced capital punishment as a tool to enforce religious orthodoxy—Servetus is the exception that proves the rule. And Protestants were much quicker on the whole to entertain the possibility of tolerating religious minorities: two successive kings of France were assassinated by Catholic radicals for being too soft on Protestantism, but no Protestant ruler ever suffered a similar fate for tolerating popery.

Natural Law vs. Human Law

Related to the preceding point, Mortimer several times highlights a very intriguing point of divergence between Protestant and Catholic political thought. Roman Catholicism preached a doctrine of supererogation: that is, that there was a sharp distinction between good works that were strictly required, as a matter of natural law, and further works of charity that might be advisable but were left up to individual discretion—it depended how much merit you wanted to earn! Protestants however denied any such distinction, arguing that if something were good, it was required, and if it wasn’t required, then it wasn’t good. This had crucial implications, Mortimer argues, for human law in the political realm: whereas Roman Catholicism left rulers plenty of discretion over what laws to promulgate and enforce, Protestants tended to be more rigid, pushing for a tighter fit between God’s unified moral law and its codification in civil law. On Mortimer’s account, it fell to Hugo Grotius at the end of the Reformation era to re-introduce into Protestantism an ethics of supererogation and with it a more flexible view of politics.

Mortimer is onto something, but this is one point where #ItsMoreComplicated than she lets on. After all, Protestants had a very robust doctrine of adiaphora—things neither commanded nor forbidden by God and thus left free to the discretion of civil rulers. And it seems possible to still allow for some hierarchy of good works while refusing to allow this hierarchy to play the soteriological role that it did for the Roman Catholic theology of merit; Richard Hooker, for instance, plays around with the idea of supererogation precisely to allow the kind of legislative flexibility that Mortimer considers a Catholic distinctive.

Universalism vs. Particularism

This debate over supererogation could have very concrete political implications. After all, if all good works are required, then it would seem that there can only be one truly just code of laws, and the best political form is a holy empire, imposing a universal vision of Christian virtue. On the other hand, if there is, as Hooker puts it, a “latitude in goodness,” then there is room for different polities to establish different laws and customs in their own contexts. The best political form will be nationalism or federalism, instantiating different particular adaptations of justice and righteousness. 

Mortimer is quite interested in this question, and returns to it frequently throughout. Here, though, the confessional boundaries are hopelessly blurred. On the one hand, Catholics were more likely to gravitate toward the idea of a universal empire, a political image of the universal church, while Protestants stressed the independence of territorial churches and polities. On the other hand, when afflicted by persecuting Catholic rulers, as in France and the Netherlands, Protestants tended to argue that the godly in every nation had a responsibility to intervene and protect their embattled co-religionists abroad. One can discern already in the sixteenth century the outlines of modern debates between liberal internationalists, arguing for humanitarian intervention around the globe, and autarkic nationalists, insisting that each nation must take care of itself.   

“As ‘“the foremost member of the church,’ the Christian ruler was called to unite temporal and spiritual concerns, cultivating the prudence that knew how to honor both in his task of ruling without allowing either to trump the other.” 

On all of the above points and many more, Mortimer marshals a wealth of primary source data that is intensely thought-provoking, though difficult to digest and summarize. She manages to show that while theological differences could and did inform diverging political visions, there was rarely a simple one-to-one correspondence. Ideas have consequences, to be sure, but ideas also have circumstances, and Protestants and Catholics alike tended to adapt their political teachings in response to their concrete contexts. When the ruler was Catholic, Protestants tended to toy with various justifications for resistance and revolution while Catholics preached the divine right of kings and the duty of submission. When the ruler was Protestant, the roles were often reversed. 

On one point, however, there was a pretty consistent distinction between the confessional camps, one which Mortimer gives only scattered attention: the role of the laity. For Rome, the interpretation of Scripture was the exclusive prerogative of the clergy, who were thus in a position of laying down the law to civil magistrates, and even deposing them in certain circumstances. For Protestants, however, every Christian layman was called to read and apply Scripture to his vocation, and the magistrate above all. As “the foremost member of the church,” the Christian ruler was called to unite temporal and spiritual concerns, cultivating the prudence that knew how to honor both in his task of ruling without allowing either to trump the other. 

This stress upon the conscience of the Christian ruler perhaps explains in part the paradox that Mortimer is unable to resolve: that Protestants on the one hand integrated temporal and spiritual ends more fully in their politics, while also allowing more space for temporal priorities to flourish without undue ecclesial intervention. Their Catholic counterparts, on the other hand, tended to zigzag like a bowling ball between two bumpers: at times they asserted the independence of the temporal realm as a sphere of realpolitik widely separate from spiritual concerns, until they provoked a reaction from zealous church leaders determined to reassert the primacy of the spiritual, and responded by fierce crackdowns on “heresy.” The story of France in the seventeenth century is a case in point: its rulers managed to be both considerably more secular and considerably more theocratic than their English counterparts. It is perhaps no coincidence that the latter provided much more fertile soil for the development of constitutionalism and ordered liberty. But that is a story for another day.

Bradford Littlejohn is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute, and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, SC, with his wife, Rachel, and four children.


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